Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!
The Birds is a strange movie. It’s full of unbelievably thrilling sequences & true horror film shocks, but also long discussions about family, death, and longing. It boasts Hitchcock’s most significant technical accomplishments in his long career alongside wooden performances from his two leads. It’s slowly paced and also thrilling. And it’s the movie where Hitchcock and his crew threw live birds at Tippi Hedren for five days straight. So let’s talk about it, let’s talk about all of it, even the abusive Tippi Hedren stuff I’ve been putting off.
The film opens with a spectacular credits sequence where birds peck away at the titles to reveal names underneath. There’s no music, just Remi Gassman & Oskar Sala’s electronic “score.” Hitchcock employed these composers to create an early form of electronic composition to create an atmospheric track of bird calls, screams, and feathers rustling (with consultation from Bernard Hermann). The collective imagined sound of thousands of birds produces an unearthly soundtrack that’s one of the film’s strongest points, with one caveat. The soundtrack works spectacularly during all of the suspenseful thrills of the movie; yet during the early romantic meeting and establishing scenes, the absence of any kind of music is sorely felt. A light comedic music would help paper over the deficiencies in Hedren’s lack of comedy chops, and Rod Taylor’s appealing yet wooden demeanor.
With no music, we’re plunged into a meet-cute between socialite Tippi Hedren and lawyer Rob Taylor. They meet in a pet shop (of course, Hitchcock already playing his box-in-a-box tricks), and despite Taylor’s dismissive attitude, it’s clear that she’s smitten. So she buys some lovebirds for his sister and drives up to Bodega Bay. This brief sequence marks Hitchcock’s most beautiful location cinematography since his silent days in Britain; it’s a stunning valentine to the Northern California area that Hitch and his family adored.
Once in Bodgea Bay, Hedren meets Taylor’s family, including his suspicious, domineering mother (wonderfully played by Jessica Tandy) as well as Suzanne Pleshette, a weary school teacher who still carries a torch for Taylor. There’s one brief bird attack (a gull attacks Hedren when she’s in a boat) but that’s it for nearly fifty minutes. The Birds lacks the precision and dread of Psycho, where we’d gladly watch a whole movie just about Janet Leigh on the run. Without actors as charming and capable as Leigh and Anthony Perkins, it’s a big of a slog until the birds start attacking and the film roars to life.
Coming after the low-budget Psycho that ended up being the biggest hit of Hitchcock’s career, the pressure was on for The Birds. Hitchcock had spent time developing Marnie for Grace Kelly, but shelved it when she wasn’t available, instead moving to an adaptation of an old Daphne Du Maurier film (his third Du Maurier work, after Jamaica Inn and Rebecca). The film was a massively budgeted affair full of the most complicated special effects work of his career; Hitch would even employ ex-Disney process expert Ub Iwerks as a special consultant on how to create the many many levels of bird photography, along with a dedicated trainer and hundreds of live birds.
Which makes his next move all the more difficult to understand. Rather than go with an established actress for the leading role, Hitchcock selected a complete unknown. So completely unknown, that after seeing her in a diet drink ad, he had to call his agency to “find the girl” in the TV ad. They found her and Tippi Hedren was summoned to meet with Hitchcock, where after a few initial meetings she was offered a longterm management contract.
This was nothing new; as the studio system had declined, producers and directors would often bring actors and actresses under personal contract. Hitchcock had done the same thing with Vera Miles (though he became dissatisfied with her after The Wrong Man, giving her only token roles in Psycho and Alfred Hitchcock Presents).
What is remarkable is that Hitchcock would select Tippi Hedren, a model who’d never done any professional acting, as the lead for what the most expensive film of his career. The studio was shocked too, but Hitchcock stood firm. He and his wife Alma would teach her to act, give her copious lessons, a new wardrobe from legendary designer Edith Head, and make her into a star. If any one fact stands as proof of his alleged obsession with Hedren, this surely is it.
And the results are…okay. Hedren is by no means a bad actress, but she’s not a great one either. She can handle the character’s initial iciness, but is lost when it comes to playing romance, comedy, or any of the dramatic scenes about her mother abandoning her. She comes across as beautiful but distant, every move calculated. A far cry from someone like Ingrid Bergman or Grace Kelly, who could make any gesture seem natural or intuitive.
Despite all the shots of birds pecking at hands, slamming into phone booths, and attacking small children, the single most terrifying thing about The Birds is that it offers no explanation of why the birds sudden start to attack. During a long scene in the restaurant there’s an ornithologist to tell us how preposterous the idea is, and how dangerous it would be if it ever happened, but that’s about it. During production, writer Evan Hunter and the studio kept pushing reasons: environmental payback, a Russian chemical attack, anything. Yet Hitchcock resisted. Partially because of his dislike of plausibility or explanation, but I think probably because he knew that no answer is far more terrifying. No reason means there’s no way to fight back, nothing to understand. The ending isn’t a victory, but a respite, and the final shot (the most complicated optical shot in Hitchcock’s career) shows the family & Melanie driving away amidst a sea of birds. The subtext is clear: the birds have won.
The film is also interesting because Hitch was never really a director of mayhem; parts of The Birds, like the restaurant scene where Hedren is trapped in a phone booth, feel more like a disaster film than a thriller. What’s more remarkable are the long buildups to the attack. There’s no better sequence in all of Hitchcock’s filmography than the scene where Hedren goes to the schoolhouse to fetch a young Veronica Cartwright (who’d fight against unimaginable terror again in 1979’s Alien). As we heard the children sing a nonsense song, Hedren waits outside and lights a cigarette. We see a crow land on some playground equipment behind her. Then another. Hedren remains oblivious as we see the menace growing. Finally a crow catches Hedren’s eye and she follows it as it wings through the sky to land in a playground now covered every inch in ravens, squawking malevolently. It’s so good that you can feel the audience gasp. It’s so good that the scene of the children escaping and the crow’s pursuit feels oddly perfunctory after this tense buildup.
Equally impressive is the climactic attack on the house with virtually no birds visible. Aside from a gull that Taylor pushes back through an open shutter, this assault is done entire with sound and the sight of holes being pecked through a front door. Hedren is very good here as is the rest of the cast, reacting as they hear the swarm approach the house then descend upon it, the noise oppressive and inhuman. Hedren cowers in the corner, Tandy comforts her daughter, and Taylor strides around the house plugging holes, putting more wood on the fire, and nailing up doors. It’s pure cinema, no dialogue, a creation of pictures and sound. In every way it’s a terrifying triumph.
Some consider The Birds to be Hitchcock’s bleakest film; I might give the edge to Psycho just because of its concentrated terror and darkness, but The Birds makes quite a case for itself. Not only are the birds of the sky literally trying to kill us, but it offers little respite or comic relief. It’s a movie of sadness, longing, and loss; Jessica Tandy is pining for her dead husband, Suzanne Pleshette broke up with Rod Taylor yet still lives in town to be close to him, and Tippi Hedren’s mother abandoned her. A long conversation between Hedren and Tandy could come from a Bergman film with its bleak discussion of death and undercurrent of misery. And there’s no happy ending either; the family gets away, but Hedren is practically comatose from her attack in the bedroom and it’s unclear where or what they’re escaping to.
For all of The Birds’ brilliant audience manipulation, you can start to see the cracks in the facade. If Psycho marked Hitchcock’s grandest, most complete control over filmmaking and manipulation of audiences, The Birds is where it begins to break down. In sequences like the fire racing across the parking lot, Hitchcock’s unusual editing technique (cutting from the fire racing across the parking lot, to a series of still shots of Hedren looking) provokes laughter, not tension. The tedious opening scenes are just something to sit through in order to get to the good stuff. And while individual scenes rank among his best, The Birds remains a strange, schizophrenic film that lurches from family drama to suspense to gross-out horror within the span of several minutes.
One of the film’s least successful sequences follows directly after the terrifying attack on the home. It’s also the most controversial; the “throwing birds at Hedren” sequence. The buildup is amazing, as Hedren hears a noise and goes upstairs to investigate, opening a bedroom door to see that the birds have forced their way inside. Yet Hedren is trapped inside the room, it quickly grows tedious. It’s a relentless barrage of shots of birds flying at Hedren, a few process shots, birds nipping at her fingers, over and over again. After the initial discomfort, it becomes tiresome, and unnecessary, which raises the question of why Hitchcock felt he had to shoot so much of it to begin with.
There are conflicting reports about what happened between Hitchcock and Hedren but all accounts agree that it took five days to film this sequence. Initially they planned to use mechanical birds, but either due to problems with the props or Hitchcock’s malevolence, the crew was now going to use real birds, essentially building a cage around the set and throwing the panicked birds at Hedren.
The duration of the shoot is, by itself, not extraordinary. It took seven days to film the shower scene in Psycho for instance. Yet the shower stabbing is a perfectly composed and storyboarded sequence; all the pieces fit together in an artful montage that suggests but never shows violence. In The Birds, the attack is sloppy. There’s no rhythm to it, just shots of birds flying at Hedren, her fighting them off, birds nipping at her fingers, her fighting them off, over and over. What’s more, there’s very little in it to suggest that Hitchcock needed to throw live birds at her for days on end. Compared to the focused brilliance of other scenes, the bedroom attack is one of the weaker parts of the movie. Why would Hitchcock film it so clumsily? Why torture Hedren for days on end? What was he thinking?
I saved The Birds for the end of this project.
Partly because I knew it was such a mammoth undertaking; a huge, sprawling, alternately suspenseful and gruesome movie. But also because I knew it meant confronting my own hypocrisy. I’m talking about Tippi Hedren and her claims that Hitchcock abused her verbally, psychologically and, at one point, physically during the production of The Birds and Marnie.
I didn’t bring this up while writing about Marnie, partly because I was grappling with the awfulness of the film, but also because I wasn’t sure I believed it. I’d read varying accounts over the years, often by sympathetic biographers, of what happened. Some of the more salacious biographies, like Donald Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius have been discredited on multiple counts, so I felt free to ignore the claims that something untoward happened with Hedren.
That was a mistake.
Because in my life, I’ve tried to make a habit of believing the victim in cases of abuse. In the case of Woody Allen, in the case of Bill Cosby, people who gave me untold hours of joy and entertainment, I’ve turned my back on them because I believe what the victims have said. And I can go through the specifics of this Hitchcock harassment and outline why it’s different from those predators, starting mainly with the fact that Hedren is the only woman to go on record and say that this abuse happened. But still that’s not good enough.
I think Alfred Hitchcock is too close for me. Ever since the Sandusky/Paterno scandal broke at Penn State, I’ve wondered how anyone can still support Paterno, buy beer with his name on it, or want his statue back up. Surely we can agree that a man who concealed evidence of child molestation is not a man to be admired, no matter what their other achievements. How could any thinking person still like Joe Paterno? What the fuck is wrong with you?
Yet here I am, trying to convince myself that nothing happened with Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren.
Even in this project I’ve soft-pedaled Hitchcock’s often grotesque treatment of women, while playing up the feminist themes in his films. I’m not making that part up; many of his movies present radically strong and capable female characters. Yet Hitch has his share of terrible, sexist or misogynistic roles (The 39 Steps, The Birds, Marnie, Frenzy, etc). He also was known to delight in telling off-color jokes in front of women. Sympathetic biographers portray this as his impish British sense of humor, or a tool to keep actresses off balance during a scene.
But when you think about it, we can appreciate it for what it is: a display of power. I believe it was Francis Ford Coppola who once called being a film director, “the last refuge of the dictator.” Someone who has absolute power and command over everything on set, especially a director as revered as Hitchcock. What choice would an actress have but to sit and laugh and pretend to enjoy his off-color jabs (as in this sound test from Blackmail)?
It’s true that some actors and actresses could have enjoyed this type of wit and Hitchcock certainly wasn’t alone in these kind of jokes in Hollywood. But it does show that he was used to exploiting this power dynamic. There are rumors that Hitchcock was impotent, based on some general remarks he made to interviewers over the years, and it’s impossible to know for sure (his relationship with his wife did produce one daughter). Nor does it matter, as this kind of abuse often isn’t really about sex, but about power.
For decades this was Hitchcock’s modus operandi, and to be fair, there are no reports of abuse from any of the actresses he worked with, including Anny Ondra, Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, or Janet Leigh. But with Tippi Hedren there are two distinct differences:
- Hedren was a model before Hitchcock discovered her; she’d done no professional acting. Hitchcock and his wife molded every aspect of her, down to her wardrobe and manner of speaking. If Hitch were ever to feel overly possessive of an actress, surely it would be the one that he created from scratch?
- Hedren worked for Hitchcock from 1962-1964, as the feminist movement was beginning to take shape. She had been previously married and extricated herself from a bad situation. She was perhaps less willing to play along, more willing to stand up for herself. In a recollection from her memoir, she remembers Hitchcock’s assistant Peggy Robertson and Marnie writer Jay Presson Allen asking her, “can’t you love him a little bit?” And rather than humor him, her response was disgust.
So what exactly happened? Hedren is vague on the details, not, I think, because she’s making them up, but out of kindness. In her new autobiography Tippi, she takes care to speak lovingly of Hitchcock and thank him for giving her a career. She even mentions that she went to his funeral.
Still: According to Hedren, he became creepily possessive, asking her to dinner, driving by her house, inquiring about her weight, and acting jealous of actors who spent too much time with her (Hitch reportedly warned off notorious womanizer Sean Connery). But things got even worse. Sometime during the shooting of The Birds on location in Bodega Bay, Hitchcock tried to kiss her in the back of a limousine. He tried to proposition her on the soundstage of the same film. And most damningly during the filming of Marnie, in Hedren’s words:
“I’ve never gone into detail about this and I never will. I’ll simply say that he suddenly grabbed me and put his hands on me. It was sexual, it was perverse, and it was ugly, and I couldn’t have been more shocked and repulsed. The harder I fought him, the more aggressive he became. Then he started adding threats, as if he could do anything to me that was worse than what he was trying to do at that moment.”
I admit that in the past I’ve been blinded by my adoration of Hitchcock, unwilling to accept the word of someone with no reason to lie. Rejecting Hitchcock hurt her career; he had her under exclusive contract for two years after Marnie ended and he refused to let her work for anyone else. To be blunt, I don’t think Hedren would ever have had the career of someone like Grace Kelly. She’s beautiful and cool, yet her acting talent is, let’s say, limited. Still, many actresses have succeeded with far less, and Hitchcock held her back at precisely the time when she should have been branching out on her own.
Do I cut Hitchcock off and stop watching his films because of these incidents? And if I don’t, does that make me a hypocrite? Certainly I’m guilty of hypocrisy in this project, papering over these controversies and underplaying Hitchcock’s creepier, more abusive tendencies in favor of his sometimes challenging and exceptional female roles.
It’s interesting to note that Hitchcock’s work with Hedren is seemingly what broke him. Sure maybe it was old age, exhaustion, or the demands of his TV show and personal appearances. But The Birds is his last unqualified success. Marnie is an interesting misfire marred by a horror show of rape and perversity. As for his next films, Torn Curtain and Topaz…well, Hitchcock would never recover his command of the camera. Maybe in some small way that’s a victory for Tippi Hedren.
Deciding what you’re willing to accept from an artist’s personal behavior while still enjoying their art is a very personal issue. I can be so offended by Roman Polanski fleeing the country after raping a 13 year old girl that I never want to watch his movies again, but I wouldn’t ask or assume that you’d feel the same. Part of me might hope you would, but I understand that these are decisions we all make for ourselves.
Maybe it was selfish of me to wait and do The Birds at the very end, knowing I’d have to confront this at some point. But this way I got 50 uninterrupted weeks of not thinking about Alfred Hitchcock asking Tippi Hedren to touch him, or telling her his fantasies, or grabbing her without her consent. Maybe it didn’t happen. There’s no way to know. But to me, her story has the ring of truth.
So I apologize: I’m sorry for not tackling this issue head-on earlier, and for hiding behind apologists. I didn’t want Hedren’s story to be true and I still don’t. But the more I watch and think about both The Birds and Marnie, and their strange, obsessive qualities and fixations with death and sex, it feels like something else was at work for Hitchcock. Parts of The Birds feel breathlessly modern and inventive, but a year later in Marnie, his astonishing command of camera and suspense is gone. The rest of his output feels old-fashioned, quaint, and out-of-touch. Something broke while he was making The Birds, and he’d never get it back again.
The Birds is not streaming on any services, but can be rented on Amazon or iTunes, or rented from your library.